Monday, August 15, 2011

Review: Gun Hill Road

TV and film depictions of latino male convicts and ex-cons are hardly rare; I could rattle off the titles of several without much deliberation. TV shows and films portraying these men's attempts at reintegration into society are not uncommon either. The narrative arc usually goes as follows: ex-con gets out and wants to go straight; ex-con struggles with temptations from his past, the constraints society and the law place on him, intrafamily tensions, etc.; ex-con succeeds and creates a new life or ex-con fails and heads back to jail. (And for every film or TV focusing on latino men facing such options there are triple that number featuring black men on--or running off--the same, troubled track.) Young and talented director and writer Rashaad Ernesto Green tackles this scenario to varying degrees of success, but his new film, Gun Hill Road (2011), I say without reservation, marks a strong debut and deserves to be seen.

The latino ex-con in this film is Enrique "Quique" Rodríguez (adequately played by the still very handsome Esai Morales), who has been imprisoned for 3 years on a host of charges. Enrique nearly makes it to the end of his term without a problem, but just before his scheduled release he attacks a fellow prisoner, a predator--on him, Green shows us, quite subtly at first--which only temporarily delays his release back into his native Bronx. Enrique faces the trials enumerated above; in fact, he's late for his homecoming party because he decides, against his better judgement, to sample a forty and hang out with his corner-bound group of old Gs (among them Franky G).

For Enrique's wife, Angela (the splendid Judy Reyes), his tardiness, in addition to the disappointment and annoyance it causes, is an immediate harbinger of how difficult readjusting to his return will be for both of them. Further complicating matters for both is a passionate relationship she has developed with her mechanic Hector (Vincent Laresca) during her husband's absence; she quickly squelches it, but that only goes so far.  For Enrique's parole officer Thompson (the reliably bulldoggish Isaiah Whitlock Jr.), it's a countdown until Enrique screws up and heads back to prison. None of this feels or plays especially fresh, and Enrique's character is just not as deep or complicated as he needs to be, but Green's characterization of Angela in particular and her recognition of the well of pain and frustration her husband carries around, as well as her own ambivalence, begin to push the story towards something compelling.

Harmony Santana
Yet the real center of the film is Enrique's only child, Michael (Harmony Santana, in one of the best performances of this year or many). For Michael, whom we see soon thereafter as Vanessa, a beautiful young transwoman, Papi's return obviously poses problems of a different sort. Santana's portrayal of Michael/Vanessa is one of the most vivid and assured performances by and presentations of a young trans person of color I have ever seen. When she is on the screen, the film is hers. In some ways Michael/Vanessa's story parallels that of the young black lesbian Brooklynite Alike in Dee Rees's breakout film Pariah (2011)--down to the one virulently homophobic parent-one understanding parent (here reversed, as Angela is poignantly supportive of her child, while Enrique, in part for reasons noted above and machismo more generally, is not), the chameleon-like changes in selves and clothes when at home and away from it, the interest in poetry and school in general, the sympathetic teacher at school, and so on--though I chalk this up to the common experiences many young queer working and middle-class urban people of color face rather than a lack of imagination. With Michael/Vanessa, Green adds complications that feel true and real, down to a conflicted jerk Chris (Tyrone Brown) who wants her body but can't deal with who she really is, and actual DIY trans-formation procedure that painful to watch. Throughout Santana embodies Michael/Vanessa from the inside out, offering a nuanced, complex picture that could easily have been the film's sum total.

Instead, and predictably, the film turns on the axes of Enrique's inabilities to deal with his child, which Green treats in several unfortunately trite moments (at a baseball game, and when Michael is forced to visit a prostitute), and to stay out of trouble.  Those Gs, that anger, that parole officer, of course. Green does, however, adroitly tie these two strands together, culminating both in a scene of horrifically violent revenge and a quest that tragically concludes the narrative. Still I wondered by the end of the film whether we ought and could not have had more of Michael/Vanessa's story and less of Enrique's. Or rather, what might the story have looked like if the balance of narrative had shifted a bit more in Michael/Vanessa's favor. That film's day, I hope, is coming soon.
Harmony Santana and Esai Morales
In this one, though, there are a number of additional elements to praise. Daniel Patterson's cinematography offers both grit and grace to every scene. Actors in the smaller parts, like Robin de Jesus as Michael/Vanessa's BFF Fernando, work their roles out. The depictions of the family's, Enrique's friends' and Hector's feelings about and dealings with Michael/Vanessa, are impressively complicated and feel true to life.  There are no false notes in the slice of the Bronx featured here.  Despite what I imagine was a tiny budget, the film gleams from start to finish.  Above all, Green presents a world that we too infrequently see, of working-class Latinos, in a multiracial and multiethnic New York or elsewhere, living--and struggling to live and thrive in--their lives.  For that, and for these wonderful actors, especially Judy Reyes and the incandescent Harmony Santana, and for his having achieved all that he did, I thank Rashaad Ernesto Green, and will be looking out for any films he makes in the future.

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